when blood is nipped and ways be foul/then nightly sings the staring owl

winter drags on and on in the hinterlands of vermont. march is always a tough month, the last rugged slog before the promise of mud and, finally, spring. this is the toughest march i’ve ever known. people i think of stalwart, stoic, and completely unflappable by anything so unimportant as mere weather are making noises about moving away to warmer climes. it has been below freezing for most of the last four months. things that are normally fun to do outside aren’t really that fun. things that are normally no fun at all outside are bitter punishments. the air bites and bruises with a fury that usually lasts a few weeks in january, but refuses to let go this year, even into march.

your fearless author wishes she was made of stouter stuff, but this winter has creeped even into her stoical soul and made her wish for warm. this year, i turn forty. perhaps middle age has made me soft or maybe it has just made me practical in a way that i would have called silly five years ago.

living in the country, farming (even hobby farming): this is hard, hard work. it’s chores twice a day, every day, forever. it’s stringing fences, mucking coops, weeding, chopping, lugging, toting, stacking, hacking, lopping, pruning, digging, hauling, sweeping, raking, reaping, sowing, and shoveling 365 days a year. to every time, there is a season and to every season, there are a billion things that need to happen within a very short window of time.

there are magical days when the sun is shining, but it’s not too hot. you have the whole day to work outside and glory be! there are no blackflies or mosquitos. you stack 50 bales of hay, pull up nearly every weed in the garden, plant the next row of beans to time perfectly with the end of the row before, thin the beets, groom the horses, clean up the chicken coop and the tack room, string some fence, and even have some time and energy for a walk in the woods before dusk with the trusty dog. you come inside around dark, covered in sweat and dirt with maybe a bit of sunburn and a reek of woodsmoke (because you also burned some brush) and every part of you aches just a little bit. you take a hot, hot shower to wash off all the dirt and smoke and salt, but you keep all the glory of a job well done and a beautiful day spent doing productive things in the clean, fresh air.

there are also the other sorts of days, when it’s 10 below zero and you’re out in the dark first thing to feed horses, then off to work for eight hours putting out metaphorical fires and trying to make nice with people who are actively trying to make mean to you, only to get home in the dark to feed the horses again. nothing works right, maybe the horses are out because the snow was over the fence or the extension cord stopped working and the tank heater didn’t heat all day and 150 gallons of water are a solid block of ice. your face and hands go numb as you jog in place to keep warm while the horses have their grain. the horses are dripping icicles, crackling like maracas every time they move as ice clacks against ice. and then you have to go back outside before bed, when you’re feeling laziest and sleepiest to throw some more hay into the nags, keep up their calories so they can make it through a frigid, windy night when the temperature is forecast to plummet to 25 below. you go to bed every night for weeks with thighs so cold that you can’t feel them.

there are all sorts of bad days: sweltering hot days, rainy deluge days when the mud threatens to suck down everything that has mass, days when you have to run from task to task before the blackflies drain you of blood completely. there are heartbreaks of every stripe: the spring that’s so wet that all the seeds rot in the ground except for one stubborn celery and you don’t even like homegrown celery. the day in september when the brussels sprouts are almost perfect and just waiting for the first frost to harvest, but the goats get out and, before you can even shout, all your sprouts are gone. opening the chicken house door in the morning to find your favourite hen stone dead on the floor of the coop. watching nervously as that little pink nub on the mare’s third eyelid turns into a grisly, ghastly tumour. coming home just before the start of a nasty ice storm to find one of the geldings torn open and dripping blood from a six inch gash in his shoulder.

i think the bad days do outnumber the good days, it’s just that the good days outweigh the bad ones five to one. maybe four solid months of bad days is a little unfair. maybe it’s time for some other adventure, some other way of measuring good days and bad days, a new view of the world.

the thing is: this isn’t a life you can just walk away from. you can’t just sell up and move. there are critters everywhere who depend on me, who need provision. and when you farm like i do, taking in every pathetic dork animal that no one else wants, you can’t just rehome a bunch of happy creatures with loving families and call it a day. there aren’t too many people who want a goat who can’t be trusted around children, guests, or dogs and won’t stay in a fence for love or money. how do you place a cat with such a severe personality problem that you can’t actually touch her most of the time? it takes a very special person to take in a horse with a potentially recurring ocular tumour, hardly any training, and a pathological fear of anything that looks like a stick. there’s no one who wants a blind rooster… possibly only me.

and so the hardest work begins: ending the era slowly and painfully, looking for people as sappy and bleeding-hearted as me to help me move on. there aren’t too many of us. this could take years.

animals amok!

it has been rifle season, so of course the horses have been getting out and wandering in the woods. this is courtesy of soni, who is undaunted by the electric fence and has been breaking it on a corner twice a day, every day for three days. they all go to the shed, help themselves to a bale of hay, eat up the goats’ hay, rummage around in the empty grain dishes, dig around on the lawn a bit, then toddle off into the forest, the better to be mistaken for deer. i guess the two leopard appaloosas probably wouldn’t be mistaken for anything but horses, but every fall it seems like someone shoots someone else’s horse during deer season and i’m frankly at a loss to see how anyone could think a horse is a deer, regardless of colour. other than having four legs, they really look nothing alike. i feel certain it’s a question of shoot first, ask questions later.

i finally gave up trying to keep soni in and have been letting him roam loose. this means he’s not breaking the three others out of their pasture, but it means he’s helping himself to free-choice hay (probably not a bad thing with his difficulty keeping weight) and has his nose all up in my business whenever i go out to do anything. i was transporting a dead hen the other evening and i finally had to lead soni beside me by his halter because he wouldn’t stop standing in front of me to check out the bird corpse.

the good news (for both us and for soni), is that soni is going to go spend the next half year with a lonely young morgan gelding who lost his elderly herd. soni’s a great choice for a companion horse and J, the soon-to-be lessee, is going to do some work with him under saddle. depending on how things work out for the lessee, there’s always the chance that soni will end up with her more long-term, but i’d just like to see him in a small herd where he doesn’t get poked, harassed, and bullied for food for a while. and it would be great if my other three would stay in their pasture for several days in a row, rather than several hours. oy.

we’re still fostering oakland, which ain’t no thang except that every once in a great while, someone leaves the door ajar or loses a grip on his leash and then it’s a half hour or so of “oh crap”. a few weeks ago when he got loose, he caught one of my newly re-feathered hens and pulled most of her feathers out. between my mom and i, we managed to catch him before he killed her, but only just. the day before thanksgiving, he pulled the leash out of my hand and went frolicking through the pasture, barking and gamboling and dragging the leash under the hooves of the horses. qohqoh, my appy gelding, finally put a stop to this nonsense with a sharp kick to the offending dog which, fortunately, didn’t break any dog parts but has kept oakland studiously uninterested in horses ever since. because, like the horses, this seems to be the weekend of roaming oakland and he’s been loose twice in as many days. the rescue has gotten no inquiries and the few that we’ve gotten independently haven’t panned out. he’s such a great little dog; it’s really a shame.

my little texas a&m quail (we call her gail) is living upstairs from charlotte, the fierce bad rabbit, in a rabbit hutch in our basement. the day after i brought her home, she commenced moulting and hasn’t laid an egg since. probably being in the basement isn’t going to kickstart her back to laying eggs, but they’re such comically tiny things that i’m not too concerned about it. the same co-worker who brought me gail has three bobwhites looking for a home, too, so my poultry herd is about to expand. someday i’ll have a fancy barn with a fancy semi-detached poultry coop where i can have different species in mini-habitats. in the meantime, as my hens grow older and die, i am steadily replacing them and filling up my little coop with odd birds that don’t pay for their own room and board. the ducks drink (or splash) all the water out of the fount every day, which triples my chores (in winter, i generally fill the chicken water every three or four days) between water hauling and mucking. next summer, i vow to create a proper duck house and yard so that they aren’t happily undoing all my neat chicken arrangements all winter.

the cats have cabin fever, except for mimi who expects someone to stand at the door to open it whenever she has a fancy to go out or come in. there’s a screaming cat fight downstairs at least once each evening and chuzzy, the incorrigible creature, has his paws in everything they fit in. he has lost the cap to the toothpaste tube, knocked down my mother’s magnifying glass (and not broken it) twice, and has a steady flow of pipe cleaner people and toy mice that have to be policed so that oakland doesn’t ingest them.

basically, the animals have taken over and are driving us insane. only five more months ‘til spring?